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Kremlin Critic Trailed By FSB Squad Before Alleged Poisoning, Report Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

For years, the Kremlin has denied poisoning opposition figures like Alexei Navalny. And for years, critics have not believed the Kremlin. In a recent report, the investigative group Bellingcat says it uncovered evidence of a discreet unit in Russian intelligence, a poison unit. Its job is to target Vladimir Putin's opponents, like Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was poisoned two times. I asked him what it felt like to read the Bellingcat report in which he features prominently.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: I don't think I have enough words in any language to describe the range of emotions I felt because, you know, it's one thing to know intellectually that someone's tried to kill you and it's quite another thing to be actually shown the specific people who did this, you know, with the names and the photographs and everything. And it's sort of the banality of evil, I think, that's the biggest shock.

KING: What's your understanding of who the people in this so-called poison squad are?

KARA-MURZA: So these are trained professional doctors who have become professional assassins in the employment of the state. So that's one part of this group. And the other part, this is essentially the political police. They are official state employees. They are officers of the main Russian domestic security organization, the FSB, the Federal Security Service. The only thing is that one part of them comes from this division that targets political dissent and the other part comes from the division where professional doctors have become professional assassins.

KING: It seems as though if you're going to poison a political opponent who poses a threat to you in Russia, you might simply kill them. Why do you think you're alive? Do you think you got lucky? Do you think your poisoning was a threat rather than an attempt to actually kill you? What do you think happened?

KARA-MURZA: Well, first of all, these were definitely attempts to kill. When your chance of survival is 5%, in other words, when your chance to die is 95%, no, that's not how they scare. That was intended to kill. And it was exactly the same with Alexei Navalny last August.

And the answer to your question is very simple. On February 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov, the leader of the Russian opposition, was gunned down by five bullets in the back literally in front of the Kremlin walls. This was done by a serving officer of the Russian Interior Ministry. Everybody knows that this was a political assassination ordered by Vladimir Putin and carried out by agents of the Russian state. So when murders are carried out in this way, everything is obvious.

As for the poisonings, of course, the main reason that the Kremlin likes to use this method can be expressed in two words - plausible deniability. We have seen this time after time after time after time. And when the Kremlin is asked about the poisoning of yet another opponent, they just shrug their shoulders and say, what are you talking about? There was no poisoning. They just - you know, they just happened to be sick or ate something wrong or drank something wrong, something like that.

But that is the reason why this method continues to be used. And it does, of course, carry a small risk that, you know, the target of the assassination attempt will survive.

KING: The FBI here in the United States told you it would investigate your case, your poisoning. What evidence did you give to the FBI? And what ultimately happened with that investigation?

KARA-MURZA: After my second poisoning in February of 2017, my wife managed to obtain some blood samples from the first day of hospitalization, in fact, so the substance must surely have still been there. And she took those blood samples to the United States, to Washington, to hand them over to the FBI toxicology lab. Because it was a relatively high-profile case, they agreed to conduct an investigation. They accepted the blood samples. They tested the blood samples, and then they classified the results. And they refused to hand over these results. And so finally, after everything else was exhausted, I had no other choice but to actually take the FBI to court.

During this past year, since the lawsuit was going on, we've received hundreds of pages of documents, many of them heavily redacted. What it also contains - and here - where there could be a potential explanation for the refusal to release the test results - it also contains confirmation that in January of 2018, the three heads of Russian security services came to Washington. They met with the heads of the U.S. security services, their counterparts. And we now know, thanks to the documents obtained through the lawsuit, that my poisonings were discussed at those meetings. So initially, there were some suggestions in the media that the reason that the test results have been hidden and classified was that there was some kind of an agreement or understanding reached between the U.S. and the Russian security services. Now, this was during the Trump administration. I have to say, you know, I'm not a conspiratorial type, but I have to say that with the FBI still refusing to release this information, maybe that should be given consideration as a possible reason.

KING: What do you think of Alexei Navalny? What do you think his endgame is? He knew he was going to be arrested when he went back to Moscow. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to two years and eight months. It's hard to see how Alexei Navalny is winning here.

KARA-MURZA: Look, I think the best gift for those of us who oppose the Putin regime could give them is if we all just gave up and ran away. There was never any possibility he would not come back. He's a Russian politician. He has to be in Russia. That's the same reason why I'm here in Moscow after two poisonings.

As for the future, it's very obvious that the trends in Russian public opinion are turning against Vladimir Putin's regime. I think the most visible sign of this change is how willing people now are to share their negativity about the Putin regime in public. I mean, here in Moscow, you see it everywhere from taxi drivers, from just some random person in the grocery store, from somebody who sits - I don't know - in the reception in a notary's office. People are not hiding anymore their negative reaction to this regime that's now been in power for more than two decades.

Alexei Navalny has been really effective and his organization has been really effective. And if the Kremlin thinks that by putting him in prison, they're somehow diminishing his voice and diminishing his appeal, well, frankly, I think they have another thing coming because as history shows very often, when dissidents and political opponents of dictatorships are imprisoned, if anything, their moral authority only grows. And so I have absolutely no doubt that Alexei Navalny has a very important political future in our country. There's absolutely no question about it.

KING: Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice president of the Free Russia Foundation and a democracy activist. Thank you so much for your time. We're grateful to you.

KARA-MURZA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.